Opinion Articles


Pubs have a role to play in the Government’s loneliness strategy


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On June 17th the Government launched a new ‘Let’s Talk Loneliness’ campaign to mark Loneliness Awareness Week 2019, following up on the publication of its strategy for tackling loneliness last October. The Prime Minister opened that paper by highlighting that loneliness ‘is a reality for too many people in our society today’ and represents ‘one of the greatest public health challenges of our time’. That the Government has developed such a comprehensive strategy has been welcomed by campaigners and charity groups – albeit with concerns about whether it will be appropriately funded – but there is a gap at its heart. The strategy fails to recognise the vital role that pubs can and have played in facilitating social interaction.

It does recognise the importance of ‘community infrastructure that empowers social connections’ and commits to ‘help create new community spaces’ as well as ‘unlock the potential of underutilised community spaces’, but its attention here focuses on parks, schools, transport and housing. It therefore overlooks, excepting a few passing references, an institution that has for centuries acted as a community space and a hub of social connections.

Indeed, the local pub has a 500-year track record of performing many of the functions the strategy calls for. Since at least the time of the English Reformation in the sixteenth century the pub – or alehouse as it was known at the time – has been a primary space for social contact in cities, towns and villages, rivalled in importance only by the parish Church. Before the nation’s conversion to Protestantism the Church had been the hub of both spiritual and recreational activity, with leisure time concentrated around festivals that took place in and around the Church itself, and often centred on rituals of song, dance and drink.

But the new Puritan sensibilities of the Protestant reformers were hostile to this blurring of sacred and profane uses of Church space, and subsequently communal merry making was exiled from consecrated grounds. It found an alternative home in the alehouse, an institution which until that stage had largely served as an ‘off-licence’, selling ale for consumption at home, but which quickly came to adopt the mantle of the community’s principle site of sociability.

As a consequence, their number more than doubled in the century between the Reformation and the Civil Wars, peaking at c.60,000, or one alehouse to every ninety inhabitants. One in every fifteen households was now an alehouse. They had quickly become established at the heart of every community in the country.

The reason for this is the valued role they played in fostering social interactions, though historians have not always recognised this fact. Until recently, the standard explanation for this proliferation was that men traipsed off to alehouses in search of ‘narcotic oblivion’ as they sought to ‘blot out the horror of their lives’. This was a period of rising economic inequality and poverty – it witnessed the origins of the welfare state in passing of the Elizabethan poor laws – but recent historical research has demonstrated that the appeal of the alehouse was about much more than the anesthetising effects of alcohol.

Historians have moved beyond this reductionist analysis by examining what contemporaries themselves said about their reasons for frequenting alehouses. The expansion of printed products was another key development in this period, and as printers started to target a mass audience with cheap print the single-sheet broadside ballad was born. Many of these took the form of drinking songs celebrating the alehouse environment: the famous Restoration diarist Samuel Pepys had a substantial number of what he categorised as ‘drinking and good fellowship’ ballads in his wider collection.

This term ‘good fellowship’ was a defining motif of this genre, one that very much emphasised the social nature of alehouse-going. A visit to the alehouse was portrayed as an opportunity to enjoy good company, to forge bonds with neighbours and co-workers, and to relegate individual concerns in the pursuit of communal merriment. These songs encouraged individuals to partake in alehouse sociability to avoid social isolation.

They did, of course, see alcohol as an important adjunct to this environment, but they did not promote the pursuit of narcotic oblivion: alehouse-goers in this period made a distinction between being ‘merry’, a good state in which to socialise, and being ‘overcome with drink’, a loss of control that represented a shameful state. Then as now drinkers sought to navigate the line between drinking responsibly – and sociably – and drinking harmfully. The fact that very few people drank alone in alehouses – something diary evidence from the period attests to – demonstrates that the alehouse environment was as much about sociability as it was about alcohol.

History highlights the fact that local pubs have acted as valuable components of ‘community infrastructure that empowers social connections’ since their very inception, and it is a role they have continued to play down through the centuries. Arguably, though, their contribution is now under threat from a range of factors, and their doors are closing at an alarming rate. A recent study at the University of Oxford has argued that pubs are well placed to support social networks and tackle loneliness if the Government acts to arrest their decline. History supports such an argument: pubs have long served as community hubs and the Government’s strategy to tackle loneliness would benefit from recognising and harnessing the contribution they can make.   

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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